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Friday, 21 April 2017

THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)

A mere 17 days after releasing their second horror collaboration of distinction in I Walked with A Zombie, producer Val Lewton and his director Jacques Tourneur had also unleashed The Leopard Man for RKO. It was a testament to their brilliance and Lewton’s marvellous team that they could sustain outstanding work of care and depth under the studio’s relentless B-movie scheduling.

This latest project (with a title once more forced upon Lewton by the studio) had more in common with Cat People than simply its animal-human connection. Similarly, it contained rich layers of meaning well beyond the remit of the usual low-budget factory-style quickie. Certainly The Leopard Man has the hair-raising suspense required, but at the same time is dense with themes, some of which were purposefully sewn in by Lewton with screenwriter Ardel Wray (writer of I walked with a Zombie) and Edward Dein, based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel. The film’s preoccupation with humanity and inhuman cruelty while it was shot at the height of WWII conflict may have sunk in more by osmosis for future generations to note with greater retrospective clarity. Then there is the personal expression of Lewton himself; such a close relationship of supervising every aspect of his films meant that they reflected his concerns and world view as surely as if he wrote or directed them himself.

The Leopard Man’s inciting relationship presented to us is a clear depiction
of rivalry between two nightclub performers: the sultry Kiki (Lewton regular Jean Brooks) and the coquettish flamenco dancer Clu-Clu (Mexican actress/dancer Margo). To upstage her rival, Kiki’s press agent boyfriend Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) brings a black leopard on a leash to her dressing room. The stunt backfires though when the fiery Clu-Clu deliberately taunts the restless cat with her clacking castinets, causing it to flee the club, scratching a waiter in passing. Thinking no more of the incident, Clu-Clu heads home where an enigmatic fortune-teller Maria pesters her into a single card reading in her shadowy doorway. This produces the so-called ‘death card’ of the Ace of Spades, a persistent image as part of the film’s meditation on fate, as well as hinting at Robert DeGrasse’s evocative lighting.

 At this point, a recurring structural device comes into play that cleverly unsettles the viewer, confounding our usual expectations. We suddenly shift perspective from one established character’s storyline, assumed to be a lead part, to another. We are introduced to teenager Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) whose fear of going out alone at night are dismissed by her mother’s urgent need for provisions. Transitions like this add intrigue - we can’t take for granted who is the main focus so we pay attention to everyone, looking for clues and connections. In his illuminating DVD commentary, director and fan William Friedkin noted how this may well have inspired Hitchcock’s ground-breaking sudden murder of his presumed main character Marion Crane forty minutes into Psycho (1960). He also believes that the inter-weaving of seemingly separate narratives consciously influenced Quentin Tarantino in writing Pulp Fiction (1994).

Maria’s trip back from an outlying grocery store is filled with tension as she enters an underpass. The staging of this sequence recalls the mounting dread preying on Jane Randolph as she walks home in Cat People, only here we see a glimpse of the feline stalker above her. Degrasse’s oppressive shading combines with Tourneur’s sure handling of pace and John C. Grubb’s detailed sound design of echoing water droplets in the girl’s otherwise deathly silent progress through the tunnel – till Mark Robson’s sharp editing shocks us with the shrieking blast of a train going by, briefly lighting Maria’s face. Cinema audiences would have jumped at this signature use of what became known as the ‘Lewton bus’ (named after the actual bus bursting into frame during Randolph’s quietly terrifying journey).

There is added suggestive artistry in the poor girl’s arrival home. Just as we hear her arrive at the sanctuary of her front door, we can only hear Maria scream, the terrible growl of the leopard as it attacks, and a dreadful seeping of blood under the door. The reliance on pure audio to portray her murder embeds itself in our imagination like a powerful radio play.

Teresa’s death hits everyone in the community hard, everyone it appears except Kiki, At the funeral parlour, she is remarkably unsympathetic, softly admonishing Jerry (“Don’t be soft”) when he feels guilty enough about the leopard to want to donate money to her family. Kiki’s current feelings will become part of her emotional journey as the story progresses. So too will those of Jerry; the theme of guilt is another that will resonate throughout the town, tying everyone together in grief.
To track the big cat, Jerry enlists the advice of an academic expert in the field of leopards, the tweedy, pipe-puffing curator of the local museum, a nicely etched Dr Galbraith by actor James Bell, usually cast as figures of reasoning authority. He is a very cool customer indeed, cosy in the profundity of wisdom he bestows to the earnest Jerry about our inability to comprehend our own actions and destiny. “We know as little about the forces that move us and move the world around us as that empty ball does”, he says wistfully. What he refers to is an interesting visual motif that Tourneur returns to repeatedly: a ball suspended on the water spout from the nightclub’s fountain. The duelling performers encircle it at the start and by referring to it in later scenes we are reminded of the ineffable path of life. This is no help to Jerry though.

As Clu-Clu is caught stealing a rose from the florist, here again the plot glides us away to another life altogether that will be impacted by events. A maid gifts her a rose from her bouquet and then takes us into an idyllic birthday wake-up for her mistress Consuela (Tuulikki Paananen). With expert economy, we are told that she has a secret lover, Raoul, and will spend the afternoon awaiting him in the cemetery near her father’s grave. This sadly will end up as her final resting place too, yet not before another key idea is imprinted on us.

Throughout his life, Lewton acutely felt the loss of his father - his mother shipped the family from Russia to America without him after her failed marriage. It is hard to know how consciously this emotional wound influenced his work, especially as grief not only manifests in many forms but can also be extremely private; however the let-down of an absent father figure occurs often, particularly in The Leopard Man. Each of the victims are vulnerable females without the comfort of this vital relationship. (It is no coincidence that Kiki, secure in Jerry’s protection, is never in danger). Indeed, in Consuela’s case she is doubly disappointed – Raoul is an unreliable no-show, and upon realising she is locked in the graveyard, a wise elder statesman statue looks on impotently as she tries to get out. The mounting horror is even more subtly conveyed here than in Teresa’s plight. A possible male saviour is only a voice over the wall, who leaves her against her protests to find a ladder. Crucially, Consuela’s killer is also unseen, a masterful bowing branch effect is the only clue to the pouncing of feline death upon her.

By now, Jeff has become obsessed with solving the killings for which he feels responsible. He finds himself caught between two opposing opinions. Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman), the aggrieved Indian owner of the leopard, believes that an extraordinary creature is behind the killings: “It doesn’t know how to hunt its natural prey”. Jery is convinced that the culprit may be a man. Galbraith agrees, going as far as to speculate about Charlie as a suspect, an insensitive joke which poor Charlie takes to heart. “I’m sick”, he moans in self-condemnation like Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) and promptly implores the local cops to put him into protective custody.

Meanwhile, Clu-Clu is given a macabre clue of her own destiny by the constant resurfacing of that death card no matter how the fortune-teller re-shuffles the deck. “Something black. Something on its way to you”, she tells the dancer. She is offered a ride home by a Stetson-wearing samaritan (Russell Wade, the voice that tried to help Consuela) but shuns him, fearing his black car is a portent of possible death. Wade would drive on to play a lead role in Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945). What actually seals Clu-Clu demise is her gold-digging nature. She gets home, then leaves again to look for the dropped $100 chip given to her by an avuncular faux sugar-daddy at the club (William Halligan). This once more illustrates the theme of the unconscious control that guides our actions. Her death at the hands of something still unseen is prefigured only by an eerily heavy shuffling sound.

Gradually the pace increases and it is here that the townsfolk confront their failings honestly, leading each one to overcome their past in favour of a new sense of community care. The hard-nosed Kiki reveals to Jerry the hidden compassion masked by her survivalist shell “Confession. I’m a complete softie”. The enigmatic alcoholic Raoul (Richard Martin) is infected by the pall of guilt hanging over the town and mans up to assist Jerry.

Galbraith makes it back to the museum after an unsettling walk home. He feels hunted, even behind closed doors. We hear his footsteps echo inside, an effect signalled earlier but now strangely sinister. The clack of Clu-Clu’s castanets haunt him. Suddenly Kiki appears and we realise that he is the chief suspect.

What follows is an extremely powerful and haunting climax, beginning with Galbraith overpowered while in the background we hear the ethereal chanting of the approaching festival of the dead. The costumes of the procession leaders radiate foreboding, black monk robes topped with faceless hoods trooping to an inexorable appointment with doom. Galbraith’s eroding composure dissolves into sweaty gibbering as he is frog-marched by Jerry and Raoul across a beautifully-lit landscape of dusky gloom.  “You don’t know what it means to be tormented this way” he pleads, pathetically. Any sympathy earned is soon vaporised by the almost pornographic pleasure he takes in recounting the last moments of his prey.  “Her little frail body, soft skin and then…she screamed”. Mercifully, Raoul saves the state a sickening trial of such testimony by shooting him.

The galvanising of the better aspects of humanity to purge evil from their midst must surely have been a moral imperative for the filmmakers in the awful daily turbulence of World War Two. Although Galbraith’s character seeks to shed light on the criminal mind (where he can, considering his stated position about our unfathomability), that hope would be tested to its limits two years later when concentration camps such as Belsen were liberated of the emaciated human victims of a truly unfathomable malice.

This third partnership of Lewton and Tourneur would unfortunately be their last. In their avarice, RKO executives ignored the rare chemistry that made their films so lucrative and figured that by splitting these two great talents into separate units they could double their success. Tourneur was promoted to A-feature direction which included the classic Robert Mitchum film noir Out of the Past (1947) and the 1957 cult horror hit Curse of the Demon (Night of the Demon in the UK). Lewton was offered the same promotion, but when he chose editor Mark Robson to make his directing debut on their next picture The Seventh Victim, the studio would only agree to such a risk on a supporting feature. Out of admirable loyalty to his friends, one of his finest traits, Lewton decided to stay in lower budget B-movies and continue his relative creative freedom.

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